The cover of the German edition of Florian Illies’ 1913 depicts an idyllic scene.  It is a Heinrich Kühn photograph of two girls dressed entirely in white ‘darting across the crest of a hill, the heavy August clouds pressing down from above’, as Illies later describes. The juxtaposition between this utopia of pure colours and perfect balance and the undefined threat of the clouds perfectly encapsulates the mood conjured by the novel. The various historic and cultural figures that make up its fabric are completely unaware of the events that are about to unfold, and go about their lives with a false sense of stability.  Yet a vague neurasthenia dominates, and a feeling of unrest and fermentation seems to seep throughout the artistic world. 

As Illies’ audience, we are entirely immersed in this world.  The broad scope of his account of the year is created through the compilation of numerous microcosmic viewpoints, shifting contemporary perspective to that of individuals of the era.  This is narrative history at its most evocative, a personal journal of the year told through the lens of day-to-day lives.    

The book is divided up like a calendar with each month introduced by a picture or photograph and followed by a verbal snapshot of events, with Illies leaping into the lives of artists, musicians, writers, psychologists.  The rapid changes of viewpoint give the book a filmic quality, so that as we flit between characters we not only see the links that form artistic movements and ideas, but feel as though we are at the heart of the creative process and turmoil of the time.  We are provided with a network-like picture of the world, though the connections here are not external political events but the private crises, interaction and disputes between the era’s major cultural figures.

Illies’ book is very much an artistically focused account of the year, with Vienna as its hub and Berlin just beginning to become a centre for new movements and ideas.  We are caught up in the excitement of major cultural events; the premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, the collaborations and disputes of the painters in ‘Die Brücke’, the fraught relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Politics, while never disappearing, recedes into the background, and figures who later change the course of history are shown within radically different contexts – Adolf Hitler, for example, takes the unassuming role of a failed art student.  The vivid descriptive style in which the year is recounted allows Illies to speculate over the encounters and interaction of his characters.  This is not a historic account for those wishing to closely investigate the concrete facts of this period, but rather an almost pictorial interpretation of events, allowing historic figures to appear before us as fallible individuals.  

 Even while we read Illies’ account from a contemporary perspective, it is almost possible to lose one’s sense of hindsight in the present tense of his prose.  We alternate between the vivid sensation that the events of the year are taking place right before us, and the subtle signs of unrest or irony that foreshadow what is about to happen.  The book acts as a snapshot of a generation dominated by an undefined desire for change, yet also unaware of the massive change about to be wrought to it. 

1913 is published Profile Books and is available in English here.